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TO BREATHE IS TO PERFORM. Zane Onckule conversation with Vytautas Jurevicius

Vytautas Jurevicius, a.k.a Vytas, was born in 1981 in Palanga, Lithuania and lives in New York City. As a performance artist, he’s been working with a wide range of feelings and emotions: of being alone, feeling lonely, comforting oneself, being alienated, disconnected and connected with oneself or with another. He previously studied at the University of Applied Arts, Düsseldorf, Academy of Fine Arts Karlsruhe (in the class of John Bock), and at the Frankfurt Staedelschule (in the class of Simon Starling). While living in Berlin, he was also an assistant to artist Judith Hopf. His previous exhibitions and performances include projects at Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius (as part of the Prelude for the Baltic Triennial 13), Frankfurter and Nassauischer Kunstverein, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Kunsthalle Basel and Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt. He is also a founder of the Institute of Emotional Body. Vytas is currently working on a performance titled Is Happiness an Illusion that will premiere on April 7, 2019 at Hessel Museum of Art (NY) on the occasion of exhibition Balticana curated by myself. Further projects include performances at Fire Island, NYC in summer 2019 as well as performances in public spaces around the city at East Riverside Park, Court Square etc. and Berlin, Germany.

Zane Onckule: I am juggling now with two phones. One is to call you and another one is to record our conversation. I am looking at its screen and just your voice appears there like a heartbeat jumping up and down… ironically, no? We have previously talked about various things for some time now. Was it a year ago already? It could be. But let’s talk more, once again. Just let me know when you need to pause or take a rest. For a start, how are you? How did the Christmas Cocktail party—I was sad to miss—go?

Vytautas Jurevicius: It was great… it went on till 2pm! Besides friends, we invited our neighbours who are Russians and they brought šprotes which we put on Lithuanian bread. It was amazing: four plates, with Eastern-European/Russian food. We do such cocktail evenings every year around Christmas time, as living far away from my family my friends have become my family here…  But it was also hard for me as my body felt exhausted quite early on.

ZO: Tell me more, please. I know it has to do with your heart and my guess is, as a conceptual gesture will serve for a thread throughout our conversation today.

VJ: Last year in September when I moved to NYC, I did a lot of check-ups with doctors as I suddenly felt sick and I couldn’t understand what it was. The doctors found that I had a heart thing. First they found a murmur, a sound they could hear from in the back of my chest. Then they made an ECG (echocardiogram) and found a mitral valve problem with my heart. Half a year later, I checked in and they found that the leakage was already much stronger. I was sent to the surgeons in hospital and they said I should not wait any longer and do the surgery now. But before lying on the table, they attached wires to me, gave me an old Nokia phone that recorded my heartbeat to see how my heart was behaving and functioning for a week. My heart sent them signals showing how it was doing, its beats and everything. I was a walking performance recording my own heart working for a week. After surgery a lot of was going on in my head in parallel to experiencing physical pain and discomfort. There were no windows in the hospital room I was staying in, and since I couldn’t even raise myself out of bed, I felt paranoid and restricted only to watching endless movies for my own pleasure and distraction.

ZO: How are you and your heart doing and feeling right now?

VJ: Now it’s getting better, certainly. But one day I feel good, then the next one I am suddenly again in a lot of pain and I feel upset and distressed because of that. Also, the healing now is happening more slowly… before, I could see major differences and improvements occurring in me on a daily basis, but now that it is healing inside, it will take a fair few months till I can actually feel better. It takes so much for me now to feel normal now. I can only sleep flat on my back. I can’t sleep on my sides, I feel like an old man when I am only 37 years old. I remember the first night after I came back from hospital; I woke up in the middle of the night with a panic attack feeling that I couldn’t breathe anymore. I had to sleep while sitting in the living room on the couch as this was the only pose my body would allow me to sleep in. It feels a bit like having a new, yet tired and slightly-broken, body.

‘No Man is an Island’ Frankfurt and Nassauischer Kunstverein, 2015

ZO: Attempting for a smooth transition, I am wondering how do you prepare for and conceive each next idea? What is the way you approach people-performers, look for the venue or create a venue? How do you narrate what you are about to do? 

VJ: The ideas arrive to me in different ways. I am very interested in public space as I see that being the most interesting place to create a dialogue with people around and their relation to the space. I am hungry for people. I like to connect, to bring people together. Also, public space generates new ways in how I see my work. When I do something out there, all the unexpected aspects add something to it and creates interesting dialogues. I am always interested in the local people because I am interested in their lives and to have an exchange with them. I bring in my ideas and opinions, but I also want to hear about theirs and what they think. Normally, when I create work, I first create a frame to establish what I am interested in. But I also give space for them to think and behave, following their own wishes and desires. Then, I also give them props, tools and texts, but we usually work together. Quite often, an idea for a new work starts from a new sound piece for a new performance. It eases the part in which you have to imagine something – something out of nothing almost. I am still trying to understand what the best way is to invite people to perform. I am interested in everyone, all looks, all ages, etc. the person doesn’t have to be a trained performer, an actor or dancer. I like reality and normality, although sometimes they are the hardest to manage.

ZO: What is the role of the body and of the senses across your practice? Can we say that the physicality of the person is like a movable tool that you use… both as a source for emotions, as well as through actual tangible presence?

VJ:  I am interested in a body through the aspect of someone being lonely. During the last couple of years I became interested in the topics of feelings and emotions: I started to look into loneliness, isolation and separation. And also, I always like to look around, watch and try to understand the moment we are living in today, how we communicate and interact with each other, how we connect as human beings and understand each other as that. For example, back in Lithuania where I am from, I see how people have started to give hugs and kisses now when they greet one another or say good bye. Before, it was just about shaking hands. There’s been a shift away from keeping distance, from the controlled body language under a controlled system, and how one’s cultural upbringing or backgrounds have become embodied. And besides, people like bodily connection, touch… as it is a nice feeling, isn’t it? For me, this human connection is important, an idea of making a person feel better or happy. Everyone needs to feel good, to be closer with someone. I like this idea of people not being afraid of each other. People tend to misunderstand touch, but I think it comes largely from insecurity and self-protection, and fear of not knowing exactly how to deal with that.

ZO: What are your principles for improvisation? Is there a certain methodology and process you are using/applying when working?  

VJ: Improvisation is an interesting thing. Until recently, when I created work that was not intended for theatre, I didn’t have any rehearsals. I simply let things happen as they unfolded in real time. It was happening, and it was like a happening. Like it never happened and will never happen in the future. Now, I have started to work in a bit of a different way. I have brought more rehearsals into my work and method of research, to find more possibilities to focus on. It is interesting to try things out, and it gives me more time and space to think about different situations and ideas on how to make this or that work with a performance. I’m also able to think of the audience: how to interact, how to make them be a part of it all.

‘never be the same’ performance night, Anita Berber, Berlin, 2016

ZO: You have referred to yourself as a “happy dancing artist”. Is dancing and sound-in-general a way to calm down, to find a way out of the problems, or is it perhaps an equally generative activity of yours? Your earlier ‘collaborators’ include songs by George Michael, Bruce Springsteen and Grace Jones. What attracts you to this type of music that leads you to use sound material as a departure? 

VJ: Music is a large part of our life, of my life. It calms us down when we cannot otherwise. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. For me, what it is very important is the lyrics of the song. I started to use more music in my work lately. Song lyrics have such power because they are written seemingly for everyone – to speak to, move and emotionally touch everyone. Moreover, they are very easy to understand and to read. For me, they certainly, and even more powerfully, substitute the text of exhibitions and theory. As a collector of music, I am a collector of love and feelings.

ZO: I see this type of pop music acting as a kind of emotional door-opener, a democratic way to tell the story…

VJ: Yes, that is right. To give you just an example, three years ago I was at a residency in Berlin when George Michael died. He died from loneliness, or being alone, or being depressed. I was very sad and touched by that and the meaning that surrounded it. This might sound cheesy, but I did. I liked his music and the story was sad… he died just around Christmas which made it even sadder. Christmas can often be a time associated with family, with being together, perhaps feelings of happiness or an overabundance of Christmas songs. I decided to use his music in the performance Wonna you be happy, wonna you be loved which I connected with Bruce Springsteen’s song where the lyrics are: “Dream baby dream… come open up your heart… common you have to keep dreaming…” The Performance was happening two times a day at different times of the day. I tried to create an atmosphere by timing when the music ended with the sun going down so that the last rays shined through the windows. I like to create the cause and the reason for such moments where things all come together.

Similarly, I have approached Grace Jones’s song “Liber Tango” as part of the installation in Vienna Kunsthalle Exnergasse.

ZO: And now there is a Billy Idol on your plate. Let’s spend some time going into the details of a forthcoming performance of yours titled Is Happiness an Illusion. I’m guessing that this performance will be a continuation of the distribution and dissemination of an idea you’ve had vis-à-vis entertainment. I would say that in a way it will add to your physical healing process. Where does the title come from?

VJ:  The title is from a book I am reading at the moment called Radical happiness: The Collective moment of joy (2017)  by Lynne Segal. It is a very interesting book in which she talks about our era of increasing individualism, and how we have never been more isolated and dispirited than ever before. She also shows how the gaps in care that come from the diminishing roles of the welfare state must be replaced by alternative ways of living together and looking after one another. And this strong question is posed there – “is happiness an illusion?”…  Billy Idol’s song “Sweet Sixteen” came from you as you proposed the song and revealed its connections with Latvian émigré Edvards Liedskalniņš who, in 1920, erected the Coral Castle in Florida. I found his story very interesting – that of a man building this crazy castle, lifting up massive stones using mysticism and his bare hands in memory of his lost love, his fiancée who’d left him and whom he continued to call “my sweet sixteen”. And, of course, I like melody of Idol’s “Sweet Sixteen” and the fact that he was so inspired by this story that he’d go on to create one of his own most recognised and beloved songs. Although the music is not of my choice here, I am going to depart from this pop hit to create an atmospheric sound for the performance that will later remain in the exhibition as a part of its display. I want to curate and control this new sound by using the existing one. For this I will collaborate with an electronic musician and dj Molly (Molly / RDV Music / Paris, France) who I first saw performing at MoMA PS1’s summer event Warm Up 2018. Molly was playing very happy and techno-dreamy sounds. I am interested in this process of collaboration. With Molly, and over the top of Billy Idol, we will add sea sounds from the Baltic Sea or the Atlantic, perhaps the Pacific Oceans or neither. I want to make it abstract, to open up this idea. To bring whoever will be there on that day with us in that place collectively somewhere else.

ZO: I am interested in the duration and longevity of the piece. It will be a 30-minute-long performance through a 30-minute-long sound piece.

VJ:  It is relatively long as it is not nice to rush. I am not very much into action and too many things happing at once. Things will happen, but they will happen slowly. Everything will grow and develop without rushing. I think it is far more interesting when things happen over a longer period. Also, there is no need to prove anything or to solve a problem of sorts. We are there to make this work and it is already a performance just from the very fact that we will all be there.  I do not want to conform to any expectations as there are no rules as to how a performance should look. It is just like breathing. The idea that everyone is breathing is already a performance. We perform and act just as much as we do in real life.

ZO: You’ve mentioned in our previous conversations that it will be performed by three people – you and two women. How will you work with them for this piece? What instructions will you be giving them?  How do you plan for them to navigate through the space, the piece’s duration, and to relate/engage with the audience during the opening performance? 

VJ: In the last few years, I haven’t performed in the performances myself because I feel like there would’ve been too much attention on me. I would then be recognised as an artist in what I did, but this was not what I wanted. Instead, what I am interested in now is to create something that starts, but in the first moment is nearly invisible. However, this time I have decided that I will perform as well. It is also a connection with you, Zane, and something more personal. I will do it with two more people. First, I have this one friend: a New-York based video editor who is also Lithuanian. She has lived outside of Lithuania for a long time. So in a way, she can be from everywhere as she no longer has this tight link with her motherland, her nationality has assimilated and as a person she has become more integrated into the US. As for the other person, I want to work with a visibly-different non-white person of colour with a completely different context.

‘Universal Cosmopolitan Research Project’ Nancy Halle, Karlsruhe, 2009

ZO: I am very interested in this aspect of whiteness and how especially from the Western perspective when applied to our context (in the Baltic) it risks flattening important differences in how regional projects operate. In such light, your decision to make the performance more inclusive and diverse could be seen as an interesting take, one that contributes to the regions’ own self-perceptions on whiteness and what does it  mean now at a moment when increasing nationalistic reasoning and forms of behaviour prevails across the society, politics, community and individuals. 

VJ: Well, I am interested here in a different “look” and perhaps in a somehow problematic way to work with the existing perception and presumptions of a certain site as they are projected from an outside as well as within. It is also related to my interest now in the different ways to find the people. For example, I am now trying to find and involve older people in my work which is not so easy. But coming back to whiteness, I find it interesting to talk about skin colour, because it opens up a dialogue about the racial thought and perception. Sometimes, I don’t understand what I am and where I am from myself: what is this ‘Baltic-ness’, how do we perceive and/or imagine it or what it could be? It is interesting to include a diverse mix of people, even if to confuse and complicateJust as much the same way as your Balticana is about to do, no?

ZO:  Indeed, there is a lot of opacity, obscurity and fogginess in there, above all. Let’s try to see through it, shall we? In what way will the choreography of ‘Is Happiness an Illusion’ explain your idea?  What will be its components? 

VJ: It will be a performance that is more like a movement… we will not dance… we will move around, walk around… there will be texts, perhaps text will be given to the audience…these two performers will take on some roles themselves. They will equally be Baltic sisters, friends or perhaps even lovers. I am glad to work with them. Women are always more curious, sensible and open in general. In this case, it could also be read as a reference to, or a creation of, a modern mythology of the Baltic, where pagan feminine deities still continue to reign. In addition, I am thinking about light: perhaps phone light will be used; different materials to create so-called “spotted moments”. There will be strong and emotional moments where seemingly less is happening. Now, it is hard to say before there are any props made and rehearsals have started. I always go from the point of sound and making props. Then, it is about working together. I am speaking and sharing my desires in how I want to work with an audience so no one should feel like they are being pushed into the piece. It has to be voluntary. I am very careful how I plan this engagement. Sometimes I am asking performers to approach the audivence  with the question: can I touch you? Can I touch your shoulder? Would you like to read something for me, please? I like when things are happening or not happening at times, or already growing out from these types of moments.

ZO: Let’s switch and re-orientate our attention, location and context. From the real and imagined Baltics to the present day NYC and America  as this is your current place of living. How do you feel about the US and its current political climate? Do you understand America and would you say America understands you?

VJ: I’m a type of person that is openly and actively disinterested in the politics. I know that I can’t save the world and I am of little help to most of the things it deals with. So instead of forcing myself into it, I am more interested in focusing on my own thing, my culture and my art, and to work with the world and people around me while taking a certain distance from it at the same time. I care about my time and want to use it in a more productive and enjoyable way.

New York as a city is very interesting for my art and performance. People here are all about participation and to be part of something that is happening, something at least with the tiny potential to be out of the ordinary. Take the subway, for example. I can just take a train and already I have some many things to see, to take in so many new faces, behaviours etc. It also relates to the way I am looking for more people for my performances. I use all kind of social media to find people: looking on Facebook, Instagram etc. I write to people and try to meet with them. I’ve started to think that perhaps, maybe this is already a performance, my art. Perhaps I should record the moment of meeting and talking to these people and explaining my ideas…

I think we need a pause here. I have talked a lot and my heart needs to rest. Take care, and see you soon!

ZO: Farewell, Vytas.

Soft Romance, curated events by Vytautas Jurevicius

Soft Romance, curated Events by Vytautas Jurevicius

‘Universal Cosmopolitan Research Project’ Nancy Hall, Karlsruhe, 2009